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GET TO KNOW: Rikki Eriksen, fighting plastic pollution on the high seas

That amazing, beautiful, important network of marine protected areas dotting California's coast didn't just make itself; Surfrider and a whole slew of smart, passionate colleagues worked for years to ensure our coastal habitats and creatures would be some of the most safeguarded in the world.

We're continuing to build on that success by participating in efforts to get California's MPA network onto the IUCN Green List and keeping MPAs in the forefront of ocean conservation discussions. We also still work closely with our partners, including Rikki Eriksen at the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation, who helps educate the public about MPAs and strives to provide all kinds of resource materials to ocean users. You can listen to Rikki talk about this work on Episode 15 of Protect & Enjoy, our California Policy podcast – and you can also help support her on an even larger effort toward global ocean protection.

Rikki is about to take off on an all-women's “eXXpedition” to raise awareness about the dangers to both human health and marine life from plastic pollution. Over 300 women, on 18 different journeys, will travel more than two years around the world on the 70 foot schooner TravelEdge, a scientific expedition boat equipped with a custom-built manta trawl, sample and data gathering equipment, and plenty of collaborative space on and below deck for scientific review, crew presentations and workshops.

This voyage brings together women scientists, artists, educators and media experts to identify ways to empower local communities, shift consumer choices, ignite a social media and awareness campaign, and raise the alarm about the enormous long-term health impacts plastic has on our bodies. Rikki has been asked to sail for three weeks across the Atlantic garbage patch from the Azores to the Caribbean, as the chief scientist and training and outreach specialist.

Why all-women expeditions? 

Despite significant progress, women are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors. Globally, women occupy only 13 percent of the STEM workforce (including health professionals).

That’s not the only reason eXXpedition is comprised of an all-female crew. Historically, studies on the effects of chemicals on human health have largely focused on the specific effects on men. Reasons for this include men historically being the majority component of the workforce where occupational studies have typically been focused, or because effects on reproductive systems can often be more easily determined in men compared to those in women. As a result, research on female-specific diseases has held a relatively low profile. This imbalance in research is becoming increasingly important as the incidences of non-communicable diseases, such as cancers, are increasing.

Why Rikki, why now? 

From Rikki:

"I hope you join me in this lifelong passion for protecting our planet. While I love the idea of settling Mars someday, I think Earth deserves our best shot, and the ocean is in dire need of attention. I grew up on the water, first in the Danish Kattegat, and then the Caribbean Sea, spending countless hours playing in on and under the water.

"I was enthralled with observing birds, fiddler crabs, dolphins, and tarpon basking in the brackish waters of the Indian River in South Florida. For the past 25 years, I have dedicated my life to studying and pushing for protection for coastal waters around the world, working in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Western U.S. 

"I do believe we are dangerously close to a tipping point in our ocean, and that bold action and awareness of all of us is needed to change the tides. This journey is critical in that we will: work with local organizations on ways to deal with plastic pollution, particularly targeting young women to take action and raise their voice to demand change; craft local education and outreach campaigns tailored to the island nations we visit to demand policies that curb plastic waste and amplify a global digital and social media campaign for women to elevate the conversation about female health; give talks and film screenings at local schools, conferences, universities and global companies about our findings and solutions. All of this will be part of an international effort to find creative solutions and put pressure on the production side to switch to more sustainable long term materials and systems.

"I am absolutely honored to have been selected for this opportunity, coming at a time after much personal loss and change this past year. I promise to work hard on behalf of the ocean and to fight the good fight. I will share the good, the bad and the not so glamorous in images, blogs, and stories along the way, with tangible ways for you to take action and raise awareness across the globe."

To support Rikki's efforts, donate here.

To find out more about Surfrider's work on plastic pollution, visit our Rise Above Plastics page.